An honest, raw and open account of what it's like to be recovering from a serious hypoglycaemic episode.
WRITTEN BY-DAVE BARNES
Why am I here? Where can I begin? How about with me? Right now? I don’t recall coming into the hospital. What I do know is that I was found unconscious, in my home, in my own mess, after having a hypoglycaemic event. I did not wake for another two weeks. When I did, I found myself in here, in the Royal Hobart Hospital. Seven weeks on, I am still here! Stabilising blood sugars, being supported by caring staff and my family and learning to live again. In a previous career I managed a rehabilitation program for young men. It was difficult work. We helped these young men, who were still basically no more than kids and whose lives had been tipped over the edge by years of self-destruction, brought upon them by physical and emotional abuse.
During that time, I developed a Therapeutic Wilderness Program to help heal these youths in a perceived risk environment, using the Tasmanian Wilderness as their canvas to draw new life from. I remember the lads would often share with me their anger and frustration at where they found themselves. Rehab felt like entrapment to them. I would speak slowly and clearly to explain to them that my staff and I were in their corner and that this place and this program were for their safety. I would share things with them, like; “In time mate, you will find that this place has allowed your body to heel. In doing so, you’re compass will find its true North and you will be walking free into your future. That future starts today...”
Seven weeks into my own rehab, I can share with you some parallels I have reflected upon. I am revisiting my advice and living the steps of recovery that I used to walk these young men through. The young men I cared for were dependant on substances, as I am to my daily insulin intake. Unlike me, somewhere along the line they chose their affliction, no one smoked that first cone for them, no ever stuck a needle in their veins, not the first time anyway. But like them, I was an addict. My addiction was in wanting to beat my diabetes by pushing my body to the limit and to complete this THE Goal – completing an Ironman. For them they “used” as it gave them a rise above ordinary, they felt they were somebody. For them, drugs always had an abrupt comedown. For me, my undoing was my appetite for activity. I was completing up to ten hours of training a week, working full time and being a husband and father. It was too much and my diabetes could not handle the stress and I now find myself in this situation, the mother of all comedowns!
Here in rehab I share my day with damaged folks, all of us different. It is easy to deflect our injuries and focus on others but rehabilitation keeps you honest. I am called daily to focus on repairing my diabetes management, massaging my brain in Occupation Therapy and in seeking assistance with social workers and with medical staff to refocus my needs. I am called to unwind my complicated, jaded and juvenile diabetes to ensure a safer way forward.
Each day I need to discipline my ego to reclaim the man I was before this hypoglycaemic event. I can feel the triathlete in me desperately clutching at any straw it can find to pull itself out of this place. My brain was damaged in the prolonged hypo, so these feelings are distorted and my reasoning needs more work than usual to enable the straight thinking that leads to good decisions. What I am doing in the Acute Rehabilitation ward is finding a safe way forward where I can control my blood sugars, stay clear of further danger, and retrain my brain to navigate the daily tasks of life and caring for my family. I am training now for my life; Triathlon can wait...
I am right amongst it, but I am gaining great insight into the process by remembering the pathway of recovery that I taught in the youth recovery program. I remember their anger as they came down off the gear and could not return to their errant ways. I feel the same because I am not permitted to do a triathlon any time in the near future. I have to learn to fight by more traditional means; regular blood sugars, supervised insulin intake, frequent meals and a slower way of going about things. You know me; it’s hard learning for an action man type.
As I look back, I see the present and the future. I remember the gut deep pain those young men had as they recognised the damage their addiction and actions had on their families, the shame. I too can feel these things now. But I have social workers assisting me to reconnect with a hurt family who loves me and also to my community who needs me. I have a neuro-psychologist assisting me identify the parts of the brain that have been lost and what is required to forge a path forward once more. I have to find missing parts of my memory and to retrain my brain, just to do basic tasks. It is a struggle, some days I just cry, other moments I brood. It’s humiliating after being fit and strong and fast. Rehab and Recovery is an emotional roller coaster and I just have to go with the ride.
It’s not all dark night of the soul stuff. I had many incredible moments managing a rehab facility. I remember sharing meals together with those lads, the stories and laughter that being in a safe place brings. It is the same here in hospital. I have enjoyed sharing many meals and can feel the healing that laughter and common sharing amongst patients bring forth. I remember in the rehab program I managed the, “ah-ha” moments when a lad would identify a way to successfully navigate his poor self-esteem while working out in the gym or abseiling off a waterfall. My patient community also shares these moments as we make progress with our memories, when we are able to complete more complex tasks in Occupational Therapy and as we stabilise our medical conditions. Nothing gives me more pleasure than cheering a patient out the door when they have successfully completed their acute rehab. Magic moments.
There are two key insights this experience has emphasized. The first key insight is my brokenness and my need to rise from the ashes in a new form and with a new way of thinking that works safely with my diabetes. I did this with every young man I worked with all those years ago. Once they had owned their failings and their addiction, they were then able to begin the work of reclaiming their future. The second key insight is the human will. A person with no will does not heal. I have been broken by my diabetes in recent times and have identified that I am not so rock solid; I do need the love of family and friends. My will power is like salt to a meal. With it the meal has more flavour and can be better savoured.
This experience has been a leveller. I can’t hide behind an Ironman race. I can’t pretend I am free of diabetes or better than it. I can’t run from my responsibilities of being a husband and father. These were my actions prior to being cut down by my diabetes. The Ironman for me is similar to experiences I saw those young men present to me when they came to address their life controlling issues. For me, the Ironman became controlling and clouded my vision. My diabetes could not keep up with my desire to compete. I need to be mindful of this in the future.
In all of this, one other is sure. I am loved and I have purpose still, if only to share this cautionary tale. Like the young men in my rehabilitation program all those years ago and now, as a diabetic who has learnt resilience carrying my diabetes through so many challenges, I can, with credibility say this;
The Phoenix will rise from the ashes.
Dave Barnes is a father of 2, husband, athlete, writer, climber and an ambassador for Type1 Diabetes. Dave has lived with Type1 Diabetes for many years. Managing it with a successful career, fatherhood and mentoring youth. Dave is positive role model to so many and an inspiration for people all over the world. We wish Dave every success in his recovery and continue to support him through his rehabilitation.